Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Pet whiskers are a navigation aid, early warning system, indicator of mood

Date: September 23, 2016
Source: University of Melbourne

It's hard to be cooler than the snake's hips, the kipper's knickers or the bee's knees. But with no disrespect to the monkey's eyebrows, when it comes to marrying style to function you can't go past the cat's whiskers.

Dr Leonie Richards, head of general practice at the University of Melbourne's U-Vet Veterinary Hospital, isn't sure of the origins of a saying that would be right at home in Gatsby's 1920s America. "Maybe people just think cats' whiskers are pretty cute and special," Dr Richards says.

She hastens to add that their value to our feline friends runs far more than skin deep -- they're also a crucial navigational tool, a pointer to impending danger and even an indicator of mood. Not to mention a great place to collect milk or food before going back for seconds.

Cats generally have a dozen whiskers arranged in four neat lines on each cheek, a few more where we have eyebrows, some under their chin and also on the wrists behind their front paws. "All of them basically serve the same purpose," Dr Richards says. "They're sensory, they help them work out where they are spatially."

Whiskers are a keratin product, the protein that makes up the outer casing of horns in animals ranging from cows to impalas. The follicles themselves don't contain nerves so in effect don't actually "feel" anything at all, but the point where they are embedded in the animal is packed with nerve endings fed by a strong blood supply. This, Dr Richards says, makes whiskers an ideal sensory organ.

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